Europe: Socialism and the European left -- an interview with Murray Smith

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Joonas Laine of the Finnish publication Revalvaatio interviews Murray Smith on socialism, the European Union and the perspectives of the European Left.

December 12, 2013 -- Revalvaatio -- Murray Smith is a Scottish socialist who has been involved in leftist politics in various Western European countries since the 1960s. Since 2009 he has lived in Luxemburg, where he takes part in the activities of the left party déi Lenk and was elected to be the party’s representative in the European Left Party’s executive bureau in 2010.

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Joonas Laine: What is a "leftist party” in today’s world? Or a workers’ party? How does that differ from a "social democratic party”? During the era of the Second International (1889–1914), there tended to be more or less just one workers party, the socialist or social-democratic party, in each European country. During and after World War I they split into social-democrat and communist parties, and in the 1990s many communist parties transformed themselves into something not quite communist, but not social-democratic either (at least as far as their own understanding of themselves is concerned). As a result – which is also reflected inside the European Left Party (ELP) – you have both "traditional” communist parties, which at least hold on to the name and "tradition” (like the Finnish Communist Party), and more "modern” left-of-social-democracy style parties (like the Finnish Left Alliance). How do you see the dynamic between "traditional” communist parties, left-of-social-democratic parties, and social-democratic parties? To what extent do you think this division into three reflects genuinely different politics and worldviews, and is thus justified on that basis?

Perhaps it’s not possible to generalise, as traditions and practical party policies in different countries may be different, but what is your opinion on what the relation of these three types of parties "should” be? I’m referring to the issue of unity here. Do you think there should be attempts to get together into one big left/workers party?

Murray Smith: I think that as far as parties are concerned the main dividing line is not ideological – communist, social-democratic, etc. – but practical. In the face of the neoliberal offensive there are parties that have basically gone over to the neoliberal order. That is the case with all of the social-democratic parties in Europe, with varying degrees of conviction or reticence. That did not start with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet bloc, though the removal of an alternative to capitalism accelerated and facilitated the process.

For the Communist parties of course the shock and effects of these events were much greater. Even the parties that had taken their distance from the Soviet Union were profoundly shaken by the collapse into capitalism, because the Soviet Union was nevertheless part of their history and had remained for them a reference. (One could say something similar on a lesser scale about the effect on the far Left, the Trotskyists certainly. It was not so much the collapse of the Stalinist or post-Stalinist regimes that destabilised them. It was the restoration of capitalism. That was not supposed to happen. What was supposed to happen was an anti-bureaucratic revolution).

In the 1990s the CPs had basically two choices. They could accept the new world order and integrate themselves into it. Or they could refuse and maintain some kind of perspective of social change. Some did accept it. The biggest and most spectacular example was of course the Italian Communist Party, though at the price of a significant split. The British and Dutch parties simply dissolved. Most of the other parties continued to exist and chose not to go over to the new world order, though elements of them did, usually via alliance with or adherence to social democratic parties. These parties can be put into two broad categories. I emphasise broad, because when you look in more detail there are many shades of difference. But in general terms, there were those parties which camped on their communist identity and those which began or continued to evolve, without in most cases abandoning that identity.

In the first category the parties tended to be characterised by a rather uncritical balance-sheet of "real socialism”, by not very democratic internal regimes and by a tepid to say the least attitude towards unity with other political forces. And also by an attitude towards Europe that as a rule simply rejected the EU in the name of national sovereignty. That is a generalisation, of course, not equally true for the different parties. Among the parties which are situated in this category most are rather small, with little influence on the political life of their countries. The big exceptions are the KKE and the Portuguese Communist Party. The KKE, which plays an extremely sectarian and divisive role in Greece, is playing an active role in trying to regroup the "orthodox” parties. At the moment this seems to be leading to the creation of a mini-International consisting of the KKE and some mostly very small and marginal groups. The PCP, while maintaining Marxist-Leninist references, is much more flexible in its practice. The distance between the two parties appears to be widening.

The parties which fall into the second category are in general part of the EL or close to it. They are characterised by a much more unitary attitude, greater internal democracy, more emphasis on the dimensions of feminism and ecology, a critical balance sheet of Stalinism and a commitment to democratic socialism. The biggest ones are the French and Spanish parties. These parties, along with parties such as the PRC, Bloco and Synaspismos formed the basis of the European Left Party.

To come back to where I began. The dividing line is not primarily ideological, it is very concretely between those who accept neoliberal capitalism and those who don’t. That being the case we should seek to unite those forces which want to resist really existing capitalism and try to work towards a common perspective for doing so and for going beyond capitalism. Some of course refuse to be united, (although we should keep trying to convince them). In the first place that is the case for a series of communist parties, as mentioned above; in the second place, some Trotskyists and other far-left forces. Just as there are CPs which refuse to be part of a broader European Left, there are also Trotskyists who do. What they have in common in my opinion is that they think that their own political tradition is a sufficient basis for building a party and for political action. Of course it is possible that some people in the EL also think that, but in practical terms they don’t let it get in the way of possible unity.

I am in favour of building a broad anti-capitalist party if possible, one bringing together different traditions and open to new members who do not have to accept any one of those traditions. If we look at the parties that make up the EL, quite a number fall into this category: the Portuguese Left Bloc, Syriza, the Red-Green Alliance, Die Linke, déi Lenk. Also in a sense Rifondazione, which although it began as a split from the PCI drew in other forces, in particular the large far-left organisation Democrazia Proletaria. If it is not possible to create a common party, then a front or coalition, for example the Left Front in France. And you have the particular situation in Spain, where you have Izquierda Unida, whose main component is the PCE, and which is somewhere between a coalition and a party and in fact seems closer to the latter. The fact that coalitions or fronts exist rather than united parties is not necessarily negative, it may be just what is possible at a given stage. The Left Front in France has had significant success, in spite of periodic friction between its two main components, the PCF and the Left Party. At present these tensions have become considerably sharper around the preparation of next year’s municipal elections. At the same time we are seeing possibilities emerging for the Left Front to be able to build broader alliances with dissident Socialists and Greens.

JL: A general question on the European Left Party. It was founded about ten years ago. What does it does do? What does the cooperation of the member parties amount to in practice? Are you satisfied with what the ELP is doing and how it’s functioning at present?

MS: The EL was founded in Rome in 2004 and had its first congress in Athens in 2005. It was the outcome of discussions going back to the 1990s, and initially involved mainly parties from the pro-Moscow communist tradition. Personally I didn’t accord too much importance to it at the beginning, though I did recommend that the SSP send someone to Athens. I had myself been involved as a representative of the SSP in the early stages of the creation of the European Anticapitalist Left. An article by François Vercammen, one of the key people in launching the EACL, on the Rome meeting commented on the absence of references to capitalism or socialism in the Manifesto that was adopted. And that was typical of the early phase of the EL. That is not the case today, there has definitely been an evolution. I will come back to that later on. Vercammen also remarked that in an atmosphere of consensus the only real debate at the congress was on the question of the condemnation of Stalinism, where there was some friction, some parties of the East being at least reticent on the question. I think this is still a potential problem.

The EL now occupies most of the space to the left of social democracy or social liberalism in key countries in Europe. What happened to the EACL is instructive. When it was launched in 2000 the intention was to bring together new pluralist anti-capitalist political formations such as the Left Bloc and the RGA. It was specifically intended not to be a collection of far-left groups, the LCR being in a sense the exception, because of its representativeness (it had at the time two MEPs) and also its well-established democratic practice. The fact that there was a need for such a regroupment, prior to the EL being founded, was indicated by the participation of parties like Rifondazione and Synaspismos. It began to become superfluous once the EL was formed: it could only justify its existence by taking a position on the far left, and it effectively ceased to function after 2006. Subsequent anti-capitalist meetings have in fact been essentially the collections of far-left groups that the EACL was meant not to be. Founding members of the EACL like the RGA and the Bloco are now very active members of the EL.

What does the EL do? First of all, it functions by consensus. This has some disadvantages, but it does not only have disadvantages. It can also make it possible to go forward, to adopt positions and to take everyone with you, even if it takes time. There has been progressively developing "a common understanding of events and tasks”, to use a well-known phrase of Trotsky. Not on everything in the world, but certainly on Europe, the nature of the European Union, on how to combat neoliberal Europe. There are also functioning working groups on specific themes, made up of people from different countries. We should also mention the Transform! Network, made up of national research foundations such as the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in Germany, Espaces Marx in France, the Nicos Poulantzas Institute in Greece, etc. Transform! is not formally part of the EL but works very closely with it, organises seminars and conferences, as do the EL itself and its member parties. It also produces a magazine in several languages. Both Transform! and the EL were seriously involved in the Altersummit process. The attempt to use the European "Citizens’ Initiative” to conduct a campaign for the creation of a "European Fund for social and ecological development” failed not because it was not seriously undertaken but because of a veto from the EU.

Am I satisfied with what the EL is doing and how it is functioning? Well, I’ve only been involved with EL since the Paris congress at the end of 2010. It could certainly function better, but that’s always true. But it seems to me that it is going broadly in the right direction, both in terms of its political evolution and in terms of its functioning. And there is no doubt that, with the inevitable ups and downs, the influence of the parties of the EL has been increasing steadily – and even sometimes spectacularly, as with Syriza.

JL: The question of the EU. If we take the example of Greece, on the one hand SYRIZA is unwilling to break with the euro or the EU, and to that extent it seems to rely on an EU-wide sea change. In contrast the KKE (which, of course, is not a member of the ELP) wants to go it alone, to leave the EU and the euro (though it probably hopes that other countries will shortly join it in doing so). What do you think of these two general strategies, the one where you opt to stay in the EU and aim to rupture it from within, and the other where the aim is to get out and effect a change that way, by hopefully starting something better with a bunch of other countries that’s clearly outside the existing structure? Is the hope for a EU-wide change too big a piece to swallow, or is a ”Mediterranean Cuba” strategy doomed to failure?

MS: First of all I want to take up what you call an EU-wide sea-change. If this means the idea that change could take place in a synchronised way, across the EU, that does not seem a reasonable perspective. I cannot see by what mechanism such a change could take place. Politics and the relationship of forces between social classes take place on a national level. Europe is not a country, it is not a nation, it is not about to become one. It is not, in fact, a polity. It is an extremely heterodox collection of 28 national, some in fact plurinational, states. There is no European people, there are peoples. Obviously what happens in one country affects other countries, particularly those which are geographically, culturally or politically close. That does not mean that nothing can be done on a European level. Of course there can be Europe-wide initiatives, in terms of processes like the Altersummit, in terms of initiatives like the 14 November strike. And over the next period one of the priorities of the EL, indeed probably the priority, will be to conduct a campaign on a European level against the TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership), for which we will try to build a broad social and political front, with unions and associations. And the EL will participate in the elections to the European Parliament, not as a collection of national parties but as a European political force. All these things are important, but change, in the sense of exercising political power, will start on a national level.

Then there is the nature of the European Union. The EU is not an empty shell that can just simply be filled with a different, more progressive content. Its entire functioning, the treaties, the laws, the directives, the structures are designed to build a neoliberal capitalist Europe. And in the process to systematically limit the ability of any of the member states to venture beyond this framework. We are not talking here about a national government which would seek to take radical anti-capitalist measures. Even before getting near any such measures, just simply refusing austerity and structural reforms, not to mention refusal to pay the debt, would mean a confrontation with European institutions. Even a serious Keynesian approach would be ruled out. Therefore any attempt to challenge this state of affairs will involve conflict and rupture.
I do not think that the alternative you outline, between rupture from within and a group of countries acting outside, is quite so clear-cut. It is perfectly obvious that for things to change in Europe it will be necessary for forces committed to change to come to power in several countries, evidently in one to start with. We can discuss and explain what a united Europe might look like. We can make propositions that go in the direction of the Europe we want, a different role for the ECB, fiscal and social harmonisation, economic plans and so on. That is of course useful and indeed absolutely necessary, though there is a slight danger of insisting too much that there is no solution on a national level, that we have to propose a solution on a European level. I agree with that of course. But it can easily tip over into saying that nothing much is possible on a national level. But the national level is precisely where you start to change Europe. The task is to accumulate forces, build alliances, become a sufficiently strong force in national politics and be able to pose the question of power, while building links with like-minded forces in other countries.

The hope for an EU-wide sea-change is indeed too big a piece to swallow. As for a Mediterranean Cuba… That is what, if you like, the first country to break will be. The whole question is, in what optic? In my opinion it has to be with a perspective not just of hoping someone else will follow, but of a conscious choice of adopting policies in that perspective and saying: "we are doing this on a national level because that is where we are, but we don’t want to secede from Europe but to change Europe, so we want others to follow”. In that situation the support of left forces in other countries would be vital and much easier to organise if there had already been years of collaboration with them.

This approach enables us to better answer two questions that arise. Should the country in question keep the euro; and should it leave the EU. I would say yes to the first question and no the second. On the first question, there is an immediate, practical reason. A country – let us say, Greece, which is at the moment the only country where the Left could come to power in the short term – which abandoned the euro and/or left the EU would be made to pay a heavy price, partly by the markets and partly by political decision. Approaching the problem from a Portuguese standpoint, Francisco Louça, a leading member of the Left Bloc, had this to say: "I do not believe that there can be an easy exit from the euro. Gentilities to protect Portugal in the event of an exit from euro cannot be expected. There is no hope that the German government authorises a new loan, this time unconditional and in values equal or superior to those of the first rescue, to favour the policy of a government of lefts that chose exit from the euro. Even if the German government wanted to impose this exit, it is not probable that it would finance it in order not to set a negative example. That hypothesis of an ‘agreement between gentlemen’ seems politically nonviable. In the European leadership chivalry does not exist, but extremely authoritarian social interests do.”

But there is also a more fundamental reason: of giving a political signal to other countries, including the more politically conservative ones, that Greece is not turning is back on Europe. That goes even more for leaving the EU. Of course it might be that it ends up with Greece being forced outside of the euro and even of the EU, though that would not be easy and Greece could make it even harder. By making it as difficult as possible to be kicked out they could use it as a threat to destabilise the EU. In a recent article Michel Husson points out that by walking out of the euro a country would deprive itself of that weapon in the confrontation with Europe. But the message should not be we are breaking with Europe, but we are breaking with neoliberal policies, we are taking measures to protect ourselves from retaliation by the EU, etc. and we invite other countries to follow our example so that we can begin to refound Europe on completely different bases.

It is clear that if the euro did not exist it would not be necessary to invent it in its present form. As Husson says in the same article, it has been a catastrophe for the peoples of Europe and for the very idea of Europe. But of course it was not done for the peoples of Europe, or indeed the "idea of Europe”, it was done to favour financial exchanges, financial accumulation and as an alternative reserve currency to the dollar. But because we should never have got into the euro as it exists does not mean we can just wipe the slate clean and start again with national currencies. In the course of refounding Europe we will have to refound the common currency on other bases, this time in the service of the peoples and the real economy, with a central bank under democratic control.

The EL has a perspective of "refounding Europe”, making it clear that that means building Europe on different lines, rejecting austerity and structural reforms, breaking with the treaties, with the perspective of going beyond capitalism. But I return to the point above: it will happen country by country and there is no guarantee that there will not be – indeed it is logical that there will be at some point – a certain rupture between a group of politically advanced countries and the rest. Such a rupture should not be permanent, but given the considerable political heterogeneity of Europe the process might be rather protracted, more so than we would like. That means we would have to build closer relations among those countries which are ready even partially to build Europe on a different basis, not only in terms of social and economic content, but in terms of the political form, based on cooperation, democracy and not a forced march to a centralised (though they call it federal) European Union, dictated by Brussels and in the interest of financialised capitalism.

In terms of the possible architecture of a new Europe there are two very interesting articles in the latest issue of Transform! by Walter Baier and Roger Martelli. There is also a very important document of the PCF entitled "Refonder l’Europe” published to prepare the conference on the question that took place on November 16. The perspective in this document is of a "Union of sovereign and associated nations and peoples”. In the same document it is affirmed that they refuse the term Eurosceptic. And in fact there is nothing anti-European or Eurosceptic about defending a European Union that is based on a free association of sovereign nations, and which has a radically different social and economic content. It is simply a question of finding an articulation between the national and European levels. No doubt if the EL lists get good results next May we will be lumped in with right-wing forces in the category Eurosceptic/populist – the pernicious theory of the "two extremes”. We should vigorously refuse such an amalgam.

One question that is often posed is: what will happen if the Left is incapable of inversing the present trajectory of the EU and opening the road to another Europe? Will Europe and the EU continue? We should never underestimate the capacity of Europe’s leaders to plug the gaps, and to avoid taking decisions as long as possible, – to kick the can down the road, as the expression goes. Nevertheless the possibility of the EU continuing as it is at present is really not an option. If a progressive way out of the crisis does not emerge there is every likelihood that the EU will begin to break up, from some combination of the contradictions inherent in the common currency, the conflicting interests of the different states and popular rejection. We should not rejoice at this prospect: the consequent fracturing of Europe would not automatically favour progressive solutions and would much more probably lead to a further strengthening of reactionary right-wing forces.

JL: The question of the way towards change. How have different strategies for social change been discussed, or how are they represented, within the ELP? How do opinions vary between e.g. a ”constitutional way” to socialism (perhaps with a little help from the street), or traditionally ”revolutionary” way to socialism (perhaps with a little help from the parliament)? Or is this a meaningful way to see the options to begin with? What do you think would be a course worth aiming for? How would you approach reform and revolution without making a false dichotomy out of it?

In your recent article on the Left Unity website (Will the real European left stand up?), you write:

”Perhaps Ford has a very clear idea about the demarcation between reform and revolution in Europe today. Quite a few other people think they have. I think things are rather more complicated than that. There is the small detail that there has never been a socialist revolution in an advanced capitalist country with a more or less long tradition of bourgeois democracy. Never, nowhere.”

What kind of lesson should be drawn from this? Do you think that communist and revolutionary socialist groups cling to the memory of the October Revolution for no good reason, just like they cling to certain kind of language, symbols etc., whereas it would be better to jettison much of that as useless baggage?

You go on:

”The strategy and tactics [...] will certainly involve a combination of mass mobilisations and battles on the electoral terrain and in parliamentary institutions. That will involve in particular winning a majority in elections based on universal suffrage, and not only once.”

Communist Party of Great Britain’s Mike Macnair wrote a book called Revolutionary Strategy a few years ago, where he ends up advocating a Kautskyist ”strategy of patience”, which amounts to trying to gain a majority in the parliament so that you can implement your minimum program without compromise – it seems very much like what you advocate here. Is this impression accurate? I don’t know if you’ve read the book, but in general, what do you think of this ”Kautskyist” strategy as it is put forward e.g. in The Road to Power, where he opposes coalition governments with liberal bourgeois parties on the one hand, and leftist general strike style ”politics of desperation” on the other?

MS: Well, this is a very important question, perhaps the most important, because if we do not resolve the question of how to achieve political power all the rest is vain. I would not put it as a choice between "constitutional” and "revolutionary” ways. But I see what you mean: the debate does centre around the way in which we approach the question of the state.
For me, the starting point is that there has never been a revolution in an advanced capitalist country with solid and long-established (bourgeois if you like) democratic institutions. In these countries the state functions not only through force but in the first place through obtaining the consent of the ruled. It does of course use force when necessary; it maintains a monopoly of the legal use of force. But it legitimates the periodic use of this force by its democratic mandate. And it has a range of political forces capable of alternating in power without going beyond the limits of the dominant ruling-class view in a particular period. Secondly the state machine is infinitely more extensive and complex than in dictatorships. Thirdly, bourgeois ideology is very strong, not just bourgeois ideology as a collection of reactionary ideas, but in the sense of constantly reinforcing the idea that capitalism is the natural way of living, that there is no alternative.

The hypothesis that lies behind those who advocate a "revolutionary” way is that the revolution will come from an extra-parliamentary mobilisation. Of course there will need to be extra-parliamentary mobilisations. That’s not the problem. The problem is when people imagine that the perspective is simply to have bigger and bigger mobilisations, demonstrations, strikes, and when they make a linear connection between that and the emergence of dual power, workers’ councils, etc. In that sense those who advocate it are in fact clinging to the memory of October. The "line of the general strike” comes into this category. It is difficult to see any real strategy behind this, it usually comes down to appeals to deepen and generalise the struggle. I put "revolutionary” in inverted commas a minute ago because I think the real revolutionaries are those who solve the problems of revolutionary strategy and tactics in a concrete situation. Saying you are a revolutionary does not mean you are capable of doing this. In the debates in the NPA Guillaume Liégard, then a leader of the NPA, now in the Gauche anticapitaliste, which is part of the Left Front, was quite blunt: "a revolutionary party is not a party which is for the revolution, it is a party which has a programme and a strategy for making the revolution. It is an understatement to say that it is quite presumptuous of us to think that we have those two things”.

I think in Europe today, and in many other places too, the insurrectional approach is fundamentally wrong. I don’t think dual power will come in the form of a confrontation between on the one hand new forms of popular power completely exterior to the capitalist state on the one hand and that state on the other.

I think that in countries with democratic institutions, the existence of which is to a large extent due to past struggles of the workers’ movement, those are the channels through which political struggle will pass. I think that it will be necessary to conquer a majority in elections held under universal suffrage, and as you quote me above, not just once. I do not think that a government would have any legitimacy otherwise, and if the Left is not capable of winning majority support how is it going to carry out its programme and confront the forces of reaction? That does not mean that winning an election is a sufficient condition to carry out fundamental social change: but it seems to me that it is a necessary one. It is the beginning of the process, not the end. It is not a question of a little help from the street. It would require massive, multiform and permanent mobilisations. Furthermore, such mobilisations, such an involvement of the masses, are not just a means of overcoming resistance, they are also a precondition for any advance towards socialism.

The difference between a strategy based on a conquest of power through universal suffrage and therefore occupation of the state and a strategy based on seising state power from the outside seems to me to be the following: in the second case you seize power through insurrection and build a new state power. We know that from the example of October, and we also know that building a new state was not so easy. In the first case, we do not know, because it has never been done, but the hypothesis would be that a government would come to power, would begin taking measures in the interest of those who had elected it, begin to make inroads into capitalist power and property, and also begin to transform the state. It would certainly encounter resistance from within the state and from without, from within the country and without, and would need to mobilise its social base. In this hypothesis, forms of popular self-organisation based on workplaces and neighbourhoods would appear, not in a confrontation with the state but in support of their government, even with some inevitable elements of friction. In the best of cases, the two elements, the government and the mass movement, would mutually reinforce each other.

When I said that it has never been done, I should have said, "done successfully”. In fact, there is not exactly a plethora of serious attempts to effect change in the framework of the existing state. But there was one, Chile in 1970-73. We should of course honour the memory of Allende and the other victims of Pinochet, as we did quite recently on the 40th anniversary of the coup. But we should also try and draw out the lessons of the defeat. Does the outcome prove that the attempt was doomed from the start? Or if different political choices had been made at certain key moments, could things have turned out differently? I tend to think the latter.

When we talk of using existing democratic institutions to win power, we should certainly not idealise them, they are all more or less deficient and deformed. They are not designed to give expression to the popular will and see that it is translated into government. They are designed to produce stable and legitimate governments which have a mandate to govern, including if necessary doing the opposite of what they were elected on. It may be that the best way to sweep all the rubbish out of the way would be as in Latin America to elect a Constituent Assembly. At the time of the Russian Revolution the incompatibility between assemblies elected by universal suffrage and soviet-type bodies was theorised, by the Bolsheviks and though it is less well known, by Rosa Luxemburg. I thought this for a long time; it now seems to me that there is no reason why they cannot coexist.

Any electoral victory has to be preceded by much preparatory work: mass struggles, establishing positions through local elections, the battle of ideas, the building of alliances, of a majority social and political bloc. This is not always very much understood by those who favour an insurrectionary strategy: they tend to concentrate everything on struggles, as if that in itself would resolve everything.

I have not read Mike Macnair’s book, though I have read many of his articles. I would agree not only that it is necessary to win a majority in Parliament, but that we should refuse coalitions with bourgeois parties. As for coalitions with social-democratic parties… I would not oppose it in principle, but with those parties as they are today, I would oppose it in practice, certainly at national level. The objective of being in government is as a minimum to take measures that break with austerity and neoliberal policies and begin to improve the material situation of the population, with the aim of moving on to reforms that begin to challenge capitalist property relations. Up to now participation in government, in France and Italy for example, has been in a framework of applying the programme of the social democrats, which at the end of the day is a neoliberal programme, even if a few progressive measures are taken along the way. That is counter-productive and has had predictably negative effects. The conditions for any coalition with social democrats would be firstly, that the anti-capitalist forces would be in a much stronger position and secondly, that the social-democrats themselves would have shifted, would no longer be part of the neoliberal consensus, perhaps that some kind of a split had taken place. How likely this is, is another question. At one time I would have thought that the possibility of any left currents emerging in or from social democracy was fairly remote. Now that has been seen in some countries. But a real shift to the left by a social-democratic party… I’ll believe it when I see it.

JL: The question of socialism. How do you find the ELP’s aims as they are reflected in its statutes and in the documents of the 2010 congress? How far can they go? Is there a lot of variance between member parties in this respect? In your article on the Left Unity website you refer to the PCF’s views on capitalism and socialism, the Danish RGA supports a socialist, democratically planned economy in its programme, and there is also Die Linke’s first party programme from 2011 which advocates democratic socialism. On the other hand, the Finnish Left Alliance, which at present is in government with the social democrats and the conservative Coalition party, has socialism in its program as a ”way of thinking” (as opposed to liberalism) and as the ”tradition” and where it comes from, and ”future socialism” is said to mean merely ”more democracy and more real freedom for everybody”. How do you see the big picture in this respect?

The ELP website article entitled Some remarks concerning the creation of the Party of the European Left says that ”the Left [..] has to express itself as united at the European level and develop necessary concrete and alternative proposals for a different EU”, and that ”The European Left is critical of capitalism: It is anti-capitalist and aims at a transformation of societies beyond the rule of capitalism”; further, that the ELP is seising the opportunity ”to regain the political initiative for Left forces [...] in sharp rejection of and developing an alternative to capitalism [...]”.

In your opinion, how has the alternative to capitalism been developed within the ELP? To the extent that socialism is discussed and used as a concept within the ELP, does that include socialism as a kind of non-capitalist society that’s founded on a democratically controlled production plan, or is it more a ”tradition” where the member parties historically come from, and a certain kind ethos?

I think the question of socialism (also other words are possible) raises the question of what the member parties’ self-understanding is – and that in turn pertains to the question of what these parties will likely do, and be willing to do, if and when they form a government (on their own or as a part of a leftist coalition). I think that without an understanding of ”ultimate” aims (in addition to immediate aims like opposing neoliberalism etc.) it is possible that they will remain trapped in an ”alien” ideology about what is possible and what isn’t in the same way as social-democratic parties are trapped in a liberal understanding of how the economy works: ”cuts might be unfortunate, but what can you do?”, ”we support a strong public sector, but because it’s built on tax income derived from the private sector, we have to make sure that the private sector thrives first” etc.

In your article you write:

”Rather than establishing an a priori cleavage between reformists and revolutionaries it is better to look at what anti-capitalist measures a left government should take and how, how to mobilise support for them, how to counter economic sabotage and political pressures from the Right, etc. Not to mention what kind of a post-capitalist society we envisage.”

What measures would you advocate in the current juncture? Are you satisfied with what the ELP has put forward about changing the ECB’s mandate and an EU-wide investment programme for jobs?

As to what the post-capitalist society will look like and how a planned economy is supposed to work, are you familiar with Paul Cockshott and Allin Cottrell’s work, Towards a New Socialism, and the technical ideas there how a planned economy producing millions of different products could actually function? I think this kind of approach is seriously lacking in almost all other works (that I have seen) on what a post-capitalist society will look like.

Their starting point is that ”socialism will never again have any credibility as an economic system unless we can spell out [the principles of operation of a planned economy] in reasonable detail.” (p. 8.)

Would you agree or disagree with this? How do you see the relevance of discussion on socialism in the current situation?

MS: Let us start from the end, in other words let us start from the perspective of socialism. Socialism has a major problem of credibility, which we should not underestimate. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was very difficult to talk about socialism. This was when people began to use the terms anticapitalist and anti-liberal. It was a negative definition, what we were against. And it corresponded to what at least a section of people thought – they knew what they didn’t want, but they didn’t really know what they did want. Of course, prior to 1989–91 most people in the West had no desire to live in Soviet-type societies, but the idea was there that these societies could be improved, democratised – hence the rather widespread, though transient, enthusiasm for Gorbachev – and that socialism in the West would necessarily be more democratic. The fact that these societies just imploded and that nowhere was there any real dynamic towards democratic socialism had a huge effect. That is what really opened the road to the idea that that there was no alternative to capitalism.
What was wrong with those societies? Speaking about the GDR at the congress of Die Linke in Dresden last June, Gregor Gysi put it very succinctly: first of all, "state socialism” had lost the battle of productivity, it had produced an economy of shortages; secondly, it was not democratic and "socialism is either democratic or it is not [socialism]”. But thirdly, there were real social gains. Tariq Ali remarked recently that in the West you had social democracy and in the East you had social dictatorship. But the "social” was there as well as the "dictatorship.”

The examples of societies claiming to be socialist so far have had two defects. In the first place the complete absence of democracy, of the most basic democratic rights. In the second place, the inability to provide citizens with quality and sufficient consumer goods. The problem was not simply the absence of democracy. If that had been the case, it would have been enough to add democracy and the economic problems would have been solved. In fact the problem was broader; it was also the central command economy that was in question, in other words the idea that the entire economy could be centrally planned. To address this problem would have required democracy on two levels: on a macro level through open debate as to the possible alternatives; and on a micro level by direct involvement of the producers and consumers in any alternative.
I think it is actually mistaken and unhelpful to call these societies socialist, as Paul Cockshott and many others do. Not because they do not correspond to some "pure” model of socialism, I do not have such a model, but for the simple reason that socialism is not just an economic system, it also implies that citizens, workers begin to take control of society and the economy. This does not have to be perfect, certainly it will not be in the beginning, but it has to move in that direction. Stalinism was the negation of that, a move in the opposite direction, and even in the post-Stalin period, up to the end, the fundamental model was never changed.

Writing about the USSR, Moshe Lewin put it like this: "Was it socialist? Definitely not. Socialism involves ownership of the means of production by society, not by a bureaucracy. It has always been conceived of as a deepening – not a rejection – of political democracy. To persist in speaking of ’Soviet socialism’ is to engage in a veritable comedy of errors. Assuming that socialism is feasible, it would involve socialisation of the economy and democratisation of the polity. What we witnessed in the Soviet Union was state ownership of the economy and a bureaucratisation of economy and polity alike.”

That about sums it up. At the same time it is not a question today, if it ever was, of finding a definition that everyone agrees on. I would call the Soviet Union a bureaucratic state, because the state-party bureaucracy had a monopoly of political and economic power. But there are plenty of people in the EL and elsewhere who would call it state socialism or real socialism and on the other extreme there are those who would call it state capitalism. But many if not most of those people would draw a critical balance sheet of the USSR, centred on the same phenomena of lack of democracy, repression, etc. The important thing today is to make it clear that it is not our model, and to begin to say what our model or vision is.

The second part is of course more complicated than the first…In a very real sense we will carry the burden of the reality of the states where capitalism was overthrown until we actually provide a real example of democratic socialism not in theory but in practice. However that does not excuse us from trying to envisage such a society. I had not read the book by Cockshott that you mention, but I bought it and a couple of his other books as well. There is a lot that is interesting and some things I don’t agree with, for example his ideas on democracy and his approach to the national question. But let us take the central question of planning. It is quite obvious that the anarchy of capitalist production will have to be replaced by economic planning. The question is, to what extent and in what way? And that is linked to the question of how much of the economy needs to be nationalised, meaning taken over by the state, how much can be socialised in other ways and how much can be left in private hands.

I am not thinking in terms of a blueprint for a socialist society, but of how to begin with the human and material legacy of capitalism. It is clear for example that it is necessary to put an end rather quickly to private control of finance, to socialise finance. That will mean a state banking sector, but also municipal and cooperative banks. It will also be necessary to nationalise major industries, means of communication, etc. And as things develop we can have a European dimension to public ownership and planning as well as a national dimension. For large-scale state-owned industry, energy, transport and communications there would have to be direct planning. But we can envisage that for the production of many consumer goods, food, etc, there could be self-managed cooperatives. And also, for a time that would depend on the context, small and medium sised enterprises. In a context of protective labour laws, workers’ control (which is not the same thing as self-management), limitation on the number of workers employed, taxation policies, such enterprises would not pose any threat. What is dangerous is not the existence of a private sector, but the accumulation of capital, which can be circumscribed by political action.

For the non-state sector there can be indicative planning, provision of credit, leaving a lot of space for initiative. The thinking behind this is that the building of a socialist society will be a prolonged process and that there will be an important element of experimentation involved. And the speed and direction in which we move will also depend on taking people with us. I think that we should avoid rushing to apply a pre-determined model and to be too egalitarian. There will in my opinion be for a certain period the need for material incentives and there will be a certain degree of inequality. I am aware that this is, if you like, a conservative, cautious approach. But in the first phase of moving towards socialism, which may last some time, particularly in a hostile international environment, the main aim should be to maintain the social base of the revolution and to bring concrete improvements in people’s lives and develop popular control over the economy and society.

I would like to end on the question of reform and revolution and of how an anti-capitalist government might act.

To come back to the EL, it is a, as a whole, clearly anti-capitalist. As you point out there is a certain heterogeneity, a range of positions. On this range the rather general formulas of the Finnish Left Alliance that you cite are at one extreme. Most of the parties would state much more robustly that they are against capitalism, don’t think it can be humanised, that it is not compatible with human development, peace, ecological development, etc. and that it has to be abolished. I quoted quite extensively from the PCF congress document in the article of mine that you cite, so I will not repeat it. But you can also find quite unambiguous formulations in for example the programmatic documents of the PCE/IU, Die Linke, Syriza, the Bloco, etc. The way in which these positions are formulated, the language used, the references, vary somewhat depending on the parties and the history and political culture of their countries. In terms of its political analyses and propositions the EL as a whole has become much more clear-cut and sharper. The emphasis on class struggle, on anti-capitalism is much clearer. There is a much stronger tendency to pose the question of property, of the necessary incursions into capital, socialisation of the financial sector, key industries, etc.

But of course a party can be against capitalism, but have a reformist perspective about how to deal with it. So is the EL reformist, as it is generally characterised by those on the far left? What does reformist mean? Reform and revolution are not actually opposites. Reformism and revolutionary politics are opposites. By reformism I mean the idea that it is enough to come to power in an election, operate within the framework of the bourgeois state without seeking to dismantle it, apply reforms and eventually you will reform capitalism out of existence, or in more modern times, just keep on reforming. As Bernstein put it, the movement is everything, the end nothing. Of course nowadays so-called reformist parties don’t reform, they counter-reform, but that is another question.

On the other hand there are those who understand that it is necessary to break the power of capital, that that involves class confrontation, a qualitative break (or breaks) and that you cannot just use the bourgeois state to do that. But I return to what I said above: this definition of revolutionary politics is not synonymous with an insurrectionary strategy, it can also start with a government coming to power by the electoral road. Just as an aside, this approach also has its antecedents in the Leninist period. Lenin did not only lead the October Revolution in Russia: he also began to come to terms, some years later, with the reality that the road to revolution in the West might be rather different, hence the discussion around the question of the workers’ government at the Fourth Congress of the Comintern in 1922. This is dealt with in the latest of the very important series of books edited by John Riddell on the history of the Communist International.

Reforms and revolution can be complementary. First of all there are periods, most of the time in fact, when revolutionary change is not on the agenda. In these periods it is not only desirable but necessary to fight for reforms which improve the material situation of the working population and which strengthen the workers’ organisations and their confidence. History has shown that it is quite possible to win such reforms and even that they can go quite far. This was seen most clearly and on a large scale after 1945, but not only then. History has also shown that none of these reforms are irreversible. To the extent they place limits on the power of capital, capital will at some point take them back, or try to. That is what has been happening since the mid-1970s. And what started then as partial attacks and settled into a war of attrition has become a full-scale assault since the onset of the crisis. Of course working-class resistance can slow down the process, block certain measures. But the ruling classes, the national governments, the EU are pushing their programme forward in a very determined way: defence of the status quo is not a long-term option. If you want to keep the gains you have made you have to go forward, not only to win more reforms but ultimately to challenge capitalism.

Let us look at where we are today. We are on the defensive, limiting the damage, sometimes making a few minor gains. In order to stop the capitalist attacks we need to achieve political power. Having done so we should not just restore the status quo ante, but start to circumscribe and roll back capitalist power.

To take up one of the points you make above, it seems to me to be very important not to lose sight of the ultimate goal, of socialism, and not to hide that this is our objective and that it implies a break with capitalism, a breaking of the power of capital. This should be clear in our programme, as it is in the cases I cited above. But bearing in mind the ultimate goal is only one part of the problem. The other is to address the immediate problems of the working-class and the population, which means fighting for measures that do that. Which means in "normal” times fighting for reforms and/or to defend existing gains. In times when fundamental social change is possible, in a context of a left government, it still means first of all addressing people’s immediate needs, but in the context of an ongoing revolutionary process. Here is how Rosa Luxemburg put it over a hundred years ago:

"The international movement of the proletariat toward its complete emancipation is a process peculiar in the following respect. For the first time in the history of civilisation, the people are expressing their will consciously and in opposition to all ruling classes. But this will can only be satisfied beyond the limits of the existing system.
Now the mass can only acquire and strengthen this will in the course of day-to-day struggle against the existing social order – that is, within the limits of capitalist society.
On the one hand, we have the mass; on the other, its historic goal, located outside of existing society. On one hand, we have the day-to-day struggle; on the other, the social revolution. Such are the terms of the dialectic contradiction through which the socialist movement makes its way.
It follows that this movement can best advance by tacking betwixt and between the two dangers by which it is constantly being threatened. One is the loss of its mass character; the other, the abandonment of its goal. One is the danger of sinking back to the condition of a sect; the other, the danger of becoming a movement of bourgeois social reform.
That is why it is illusory, and contrary to historic experience, to hope to fix, once and for always, the direction of the revolutionary socialist struggle with the aid of formal means, which are expected to secure the labor movement against all possibilities of opportunist digression.”

Being frank about our ultimate objective will not necessarily limit our audience. On the contrary, for at least a certain layer of the population it can make it easier to explain the coherence of the measures taken by a left government. But in order to win majority support and be able to form a left government it is necessary to address the immediate problems facing the mass of the population. In Europe today that is quite clear. A left government would start by annulling austerity measures, restoring labour rights, pensions, reversing structural reforms, dealing with the question of the debt. Defence of public services would mean blocking privatisation and even taking public services back into public ownership. At this point we would already be in a confrontation with the defenders of the old order. But the measures already taken would be (and would have to be) popular. A very interesting survey taken recently in Britain – not the most radical country in Europe – showed substantial majorities in favour of public ownership – 84 per cent in defence of the public health service, between 60 and 70 per cent for the re-nationalisation of energy, postal services, the railways. If that is the state of public opinion today, we can be optimistic about the dynamic that a left government could generate.

Let us imagine that a left government arrives in power. After dealing with the immediate problems as above, the problem would be to begin to make the economy function along different lines. That would involve shifting from a finance-based economy to one based on the production of goods and services for need not for profit. How quickly this would unfold would depend on many factors including the degree and violence of opposition. But above all it will take place at the speed that corresponds to the consciousness and will of the population.

Marx talks about the first step in the revolution being to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to win the battle of democracy. This seems to me best understood not as an action but as a process. The battle of democracy is not won just because a left government is elected and the proletariat does not raise itself to the position of ruling class overnight. The Manifesto talks about wresting capital from the bourgeoisie by degrees and taking measures which appear economically insufficient and untenable, but which outstrip themselves and necessitate further inroads upon the old order. The key factor in determining the rhythm will be the degree to which measures are understood on a mass level. For example one might start with a public banking pole designed to channel funds to the productive economy. Would that break the power of finance? No. It is actually a good example a measure that is "insufficient and untenable”. But at a certain point – either now or in the context of a left government- it could appear as a logical step towards a policy of reindustrialisation and it would be a step in the right direction. It would also be necessary, logical, understandable, at once to establish capital controls, to ban certain forms of speculation, as an immediate measure. At a certain point the socialisation of finance would become a clearly perceived necessity. Equally, it is not so difficult to explain, even today, that relaunching the productive economy means public ownership. In the steel industry, for example, the limits of appealing to private owners are obvious.

It is difficult to have a strategy for revolution in a general way. There can be a general approach which in Europe today can be summed up as combining electoral activity and parliamentary work with mass political action in society. How this can crystallise into a definite strategy aiming at political power can only be determined in the concrete circumstances of a particular country.